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The smartphone as a teaching aid

Luis Dias

I’m quite a technophobe (old dog, new tricks) and resisted acquiring a so-called smartphone until 2012. My trusty old phone had begun playing up, I had been invited as part of a music pedagogy delegation to the US and friends advised me that I’d need a smartphone to stay in touch with family and colleagues on WhatsApp (I hadn’t heard of it until then!).

I reluctantly got myself a Samsung smartphone just before the trip. But over the years, I have grudgingly come to see its many advantages.

I would like to focus on the many ways a smartphone can be used as a music teaching aid. I am sure there must be even more. Not all our Child’s Play children or parents/guardians have access to a phone, but a surprising number of them have at least surrogate access, through another child or neighbour.

The most obvious use is of course, WhatsApp. Where applicable, I use it to communicate individually or as a group to students, and to their parents or guardians.

Apart from mundane matters to do with timetables and changes in schedule, it can be used effectively to discuss issues with parents, especially those who are unable to accompany their child for each lesson.

Learning points can be reinforced through this portal as well. For instance, a discussion on recognition of key signatures and the Circle of Fifths can be bolstered by sharing a pictorial representation of it.

It also becomes a handy pocket reference for the child and parent at home.

Those who have even periodic internet access can be given homework to read up, for example the lives of composers (I usually ask them to write down and remember just three key points, such as the period they lived in, their country of origin, and one or two famous works). If the piece they are working on is called a Minuet or Gavotte or Rigaudon, it is the perfect entry point to learn more about dance forms in classical music. And so on.

I think that only those of my generation will appreciate just how remarkably easy it is to get hold of information today. Today’s generation take it as a given.

When I was growing up, if there wasn’t a book at home or in the library to consult, or on the fine print of a record sleeve, then one just couldn’t learn any more on the subject, no matter how hungry one was for that knowledge. If someone at the time were to tell us that someday one would be able to look up anything one wanted at the mere press of a button on a pocket-sized gadget, we probably wouldn’t have believed them.

The video function of the camera can help to record a student’s playing and discuss several aspects ranging from posture to bow distribution and length, tone production, sound quality, intonation, and so much more. A video where the teacher demonstrates the learning points of the session can then be sent to the child’s/parent’s phone to serve as a reminder when home practice is being done.

The parent has a better idea of what to concentrate on when the home practice is being supervised. This can be done for an individual child, or for a larger group, as is often the case in Child’s Play.

Some of our older children are beginning to leave high school and enter college, and the new academic schedule sometimes doesn’t permit as regular contact as before; so the video link helps plug this gap in its small way.

In some cases, (and I wish it happened more often!) diligent parents take videos on their phones of their child practicing a segment that they find problematic, and suggestions can be offered via WhatsApp on how to ‘solve’ the problem’, as it were. It helps a child to come better prepared for the next lesson, and the teacher gets a clearer idea of how practice is being done at home.

YouTube is an invaluable resource as well. Most of our Child’s Play children don’t have access to good audio systems in their home. In our earlier years, we experimented with cheap MP3 players (and they did do the trick while they lasted), but sooner or later, the gadgets developed technical glitches.

But with a smartphone and even sporadic internet access allowing one to download music videos sent across to them, they are able to listen and watch top-notch playing.

Exposure like this to high-quality playing helps broaden horizons and better attune the inner ear to aspiring towards a fuller tone, good intonation, musicality and phrasing, and opens a window to a much wider world than the classroom and their geographic limitations.

At the same time that a child is learning the ‘craft’ of playing, if you like, it is also important that they see and hear the art, and familiarise themselves with the great instrumentalists in the world, past and present. Many of our children go on to choose their ‘favourite’ artist and begin to listen to other tracks by him/her.

A video of someone as young as them playing to the highest level can be hugely inspirational. It is audio-visual proof that it is possible, provided the work is put in, and under proper guidance, of course.

In addition to performance videos, there are a lot of good-quality music education videos out there too (although caution must be advised, as there are equally many that are quite terrible). For instance, several students found a Suzuki video on intonation and tonalisation points extremely helpful.

Although I am still fond of my trusty tuning-fork which is pitched at concert A (440 Hertz), today anyone with a smartphone can download a free tuner app. It helps many a student and parent with instruments that go out of tune.

Many apps give absolute pitches for each string, and “tell” you when you are tuned, but I advise the old-fashioned reliance on the ear for tuning the other strings in relation to the A.

Another useful app (and again, there are so many of them for free!) is the metronome. Although I possess the good old wind-up version, I use it less and less.

The smartphone is so much more portable and handy, literally. I personally dislike the ‘digital’ sound of some of them, but thankfully there are many that sound just as authentically ‘tick-tock’ as the real thing.

It is useful to regulate slow practice of a tricky passage, and gradually notch up the tempo to performance speed.

Perhaps you know of other uses of the smartphone as a music teaching aid? I’d love to hear
about them!

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